In the 1970s I worked for Akwesasne Notes, the Mohawk Nation newspaper and the largest Native journal in the world. We had our hand on the pulse of every story, every issue in Indian Country. James Bay, Four Corners, Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, the Longest Walk, the Fish-Ins, the Unity Caravans, Indian women being sterilized, Indian men being incarcerated, Indian children being stolen by churches.
But did our professional colleagues in the media ever call us up for some questions and answers? No…and this is a true story … the only time they ever called us was at … Thanksgiving! It became an inside joke, a ritual even, as dozens of reporters called us from all over the country … asking us about Thanksgiving Day.
“Are you celebrating Thanksgiving?”
Hey, we’re working, no vacation here.
“Are you eating pumpkin pie and turkey?”
I think we like invented those things.
“Do you know the story of the first Thanksgiving?”
Oh, you mean those Pequots that didn’t die by disease and were burned alive praying inside their churches? Well, don’t worry about them because they now have the biggest casino in the world.
“Is Thanksgiving an Indian ritual?”
Hey buddy, we give thanks every day, mostly for still being alive.
These reporters seems friendly, yet desperate, looking for some common ground in a myth they truly believed in, but it was slowly being dissolved as they continued asking questions. Imagine going through this every year. That was our ritual and our ordeal.
I think that the old hard-bitten reporters on the other side of the phone would tell the brand spanking new reporters, fresh from journalism school, “Hey, its Thanksgiving…YOU call the Indians and see what they’re doing.”
Oh, of course there was one other day that our professional colleagues in the media would call. They would also call us every year on…Columbus Day. But this time they knew this would be harder to take.
“Mr. Indian, what is the significance of Columbus Day?”
Ya ever been date-raped? Ever been mugged? Ever had everything you own been stolen from you? Ever had someone try to sell your stolen goods back to you? Ever been chased across a continent? Ever had everything you love been turned into postcards or souvenirs?
No, they knew it was a harder story than Thanksgiving, but still tried to find that common ground.
“Well, didn’t we give you good stuff? Like, we gave you technology, and you gave us corn and potatoes and moccasins. Besides, things are better now, so maybe it was worth it, in the long run.”
Yeah buddy, but we did all the running. You guys took all the best and left us the worst. If it wasn’t for us, you all would still be wearing powdered wigs and codpieces and tight shoes and would still be told what to do by Kings, Queens and Popes … weh! you mean you still listen to them?
So they would leave us alone for another year, or until Dennis Banks or Russell Means would get arrested again. But why would they never call us on any other day? Because we Indians are relegated to the Human Interest Page and to This-Day-In-History, never the front page or even the opinion page. No one can tell our story because it involves all the rest of the story! The robber barons, the get rich quick schemes, the settlers sent west as sacrifices by Washington politicians, selling Indian scalps for a dollar to buy an acre of Indian land for a dollar, the corporations getting fat off the land, the governments ignoring us into oblivion.
These people coming to us wanting more and more of what little we have left. Right now government scientists want to collect our blood, presumably as samples of a near extinct race. But why would our oppressors want to study and capture our blood? Are they going to grow Cayugas from petri dishes? Talk about your X-Files, the truth is out there somewhere.
Anyway, now that no one is buying Indian Art anymore … I think we can make money by starting a 12 Step Indian Rehab Program. First step is you must admit you are an Indian ‘til the day you die. Second, ask your grandparents about all their boarding school experiences. Third, relate your own school experiences and realize how much previous generations have gone through just to get you where you are at today.
Fourth, tell about all the Indian movies you ever saw. Fifth, tell about all the Indian jokes you ever heard. Sixth, tell about all the Indian mascots you’ve run across or been compared to. Seventh, tell about the times you didn’t want to be an Indian.
Eighth, admit to not only watching F-Troop but that it was your favorite TV show, admit to doing the Tomahawk Chop during games, admit to cheering for the Dallas Cowboys over the Washington Redskins. Ninth, admit you buy Land O Lakes butter and Big Chief pretzels just for the princess and the chief.
Tenth step, bring in The Wannabes, and ask them why they or anybody would want to be an Indian when they don’t have to be one. Eleventh, now we all talk about those past-life experiences just to see if any of those wannabes are actually long lost relatives, you never know. And the Twelfth and final step, we all go to pow-wow and sing and dance without making too much fun of each other’s singing and dancing or whatever the wannabes are wearing. Seriously. Keep a stoic face. This is the hard part. But after that it’s all tears and hugs and cashing the checks.
Since we have to go now as the bingo committee has rented this room, don’t forget our AA-AYY Prayer:
“Creator, please grant me the courage to rise up every morning to face this insane world and chase those people out of my yard trying to buy something. Grandfather, grant me the serenity to deal with all these aliens and immigrants and tourists, who don’t know where they are or where they’re going. Creator, grant me buns of steel as I walk this concrete land looking for my Mother Earth. Great Mystery, grant me the wisdom to realize I can not change people who do not want to be changed but I can still give them the willies with my stoic look. Old-Timer, grant me good humor as I go along in this world, so I can play tricks and be able to retell them to everybody at home. And Creator, most of all, if I die before I wake, make sure I’m still an Indian in the next life.”
Niawen / thank you. Tanito / I have spoken.
Alex Jacobs / Karoniaktahke
Why is November Native American Heritage Month? What cruel joke is this that our ingrained hospitality toward these ignorant, hungry, desperate immigrants would lead to 95 percent decimation of our population and territory? As a Native Writer, we realize that our writings are still relevant because the stories remain the same only the names of tribes and politicians change. American mythology runs rampant in its blissful ignorance and starts this cruel and cold month. Thanksgiving was not a feast it was the first welfare supper.
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.